Archives for posts with tag: culture

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture lately. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I spent the Chinese New Year with my friend and her family in her hometown of Qiaojia, Yunnan. As the sole representative of all of Western Culture, I found myself thinking a lot about the cultural norms that have influenced me growing up in the United States.

In Qiaojia I met lots of interesting characters: the maybe-lesbian from a poor farming village who is studying to be an accountant; the fourteen-year-old cousin with her own motorcycle and more maturity then I’ll ever have; the dude who manages hotels in Chengdu and may or may not be part of the Qiaojia Mafia.

One of the most interesting people I met was my friend’s father, Mr. Zhu, who is a teacher, local historian, and respected figure in the community. Unlike most people of his generation in Qiaojia, he was: 1) able to speak Standard Mandarin, and 2) eager to speak it with me, delving deeper than just “where are you from” and “why are you so tall.” I was incredibly grateful to Mr. Zhu, not only for being such a generous host, but also for providing some of the most stimulating conversation I had with anyone in Qiaojia. He shared my dislike of violent Chinese movies in which the Japanese are always unequivocally evil. He loved looking at my pictures of Vermont, and concluded that my family always looked extremely happy in each other’s company.

As time went on, however, I began to get the sense that Mr. Zhu was not too fond of Western culture, and American culture in particular. There was the old argument that America has only a few hundred years of history, compared to China’s “five thousand years,” and the suggestion that American culture is shallow, empty, and hollow in comparison. He didn’t say any of these things outright, but I sensed his underlying meaning—and I always agreed readily. Why shouldn’t I? America is far from perfect. Because of Americans’ diverse backgrounds, we do indeed lack the singular, cohesive cultural history of which (Han) China is so proud.

Mr. Zhu’s opinions were epitomized in a discussion we had about the meaning of 羊 “yang,” the zodiac animal whose year we just entered. 羊 in English can be variously translated as “sheep,” “goat,” or “ram.” During the days leading up to the New Year, several lighthearted news articles appeared in the U.S. highlighting this confusion: so is it a sheep, or is it a goat?

I brought the subject up with Mr. Zhu, thinking he might find it amusing. Instead, he proceeded to write two characters onto a piece of paper for me. The first was 意, or meaning. The second was 形, or appearance. Chinese characters denote meaning, while English letters denote sound, or appearance. He further explained that 羊 has deep cultural meaning in China, symbolic of auspiciousness (since the character 祥, meaning auspicious, contains 羊). He explained that any differentiation between sheep and goats (绵羊 and 山羊) is irrelevant to this meaning. The distinction in English between sheep and goats refers to a difference in biological species, or a difference in appearance alone.

I nodded along as he said this, but I also felt myself becoming a little defensive.

First of all, written language does not necessarily correlate with cultural richness. Second of all, it is false to assume that American cultural development only began in 1776. It is false to assume that our sheep/goat distinction is purely based on taxonomy, and not on deeply held cultural beliefs of our own.

Because here’s the thing: there is a very significant difference between sheep and goats in my culture, American culture, a culture steeped in the traditions of Western Europe.

Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell, as the song goes.

Sheep herding has a long history in Europe and its subsequent cultures. Sheep herding and the peaceful, idyllic life of the shepherd have inspired countless works of literature, art, and classical music. I’ve played the clarinet part in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony myself, and that piece is indisputably a beautiful, complex accomplishment of human culture. Sheep herding meant the breeding of sheep-herding dogs—collies, corgis, and shepherds—which have in turn created cultural icons from Lassie to K9. Sheep herding meant Fair Isle knitting. Haggis. Little Bo Peep. Jesus was a shepherd, his followers a flock.

And goats? Traditionally more common in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, goats are a bit more exotic. They’re tricksters. The devil takes the form of a goat, and his followers wear goatees. That Taylor Swift “Trouble” video would have been much less hilarious with a sheep.

My point is this: our distinction between sheep and goats is much more than a line drawn between two scientifically classified species. It is a deep cultural division of no less validity or significance than the 羊 in Chinese culture. Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell.

I wish I could have explained this to Mr. Zhu, but at the time my mind drew a blank. It took me several days of mulling it over before I could put into words what I had felt all along—that while American culture may be young, it does not exist in a vacuum.

But even if I’d had the presence of mind to explain the goat/sheep distinction at the time, I’m not sure if I would have dared to open my mouth.

Would it have offended Mr. Zhu, my incredibly generous host?

Did I even have a point at all?

Or was I desperately trying to justify a culture that is objectively shallow compared to the culture of China?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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After my first week in Sichuan, I am pleased to announce that my lost luggage has been returned, my jet lag has disappeared, and I haven’t gotten sick. Other than that though, I don’t have much to report. I’m still getting used to the routine at the Laohegou Nature Reserve, figuring out what’s going on, who’s who, and how to decipher the Sichuan dialect. Being thrust into a new group of people in a new part of China has made me appreciate how close I became with many of the people I met in Lijiang. Hell, I even dated a local. We aren’t together anymore, but we are still in touch and chat occasionally on Wechat.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post. It’s something I imagine many people are curious about: what was it like to date a rural Chinese person? Weren’t there cultural differences?

The short answer is yes, there were. If the relationship were truly right, however, I believe that any of these differences could be overcome.

As for the long answer, I will attempt to explain several differences in mindset and behavior that I perceived to be cultural, rather than individual. This is not a complete list, and a Part Two might be necessary if I think of more points later. Bear in mind that since I can only speak from my personal experience, I cannot say for sure whether the following cultural differences are specific to ethnic Naxi people, whether they apply throughout rural Yunnan Province, or whether they are indicative of China as a whole.

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  1. Culinary Rigidity

In Southern China, people eat rice. Rice is their staple. Without it, a meal is incomplete. TF was not very adventurous when it came to food, and believed very strongly that without rice, he wouldn’t feel full. If we ate noodles for lunch, we had to have rice for dinner. If we ate at a western-style restaurant (which only happened occasionally), he would order the only rice dish on the menu. He didn’t like pizza, because as he saw it, the crust was a staple food and should be eaten separately from the meat, cheese, and vegetables. He had no taste for sweets, and little interest in trying new foods. Not to mention the fact that I consistently ate more than him!

  1. Insensitivity to Social Injustice

In the United States, most people are hyper-aware of political sensitivity and eager to avoid offending people. Even if many Americans are in fact prejudiced, we are usually unwilling to voice such opinions aloud. Not so in China. I heard several pointed comments aimed at TF, often along the lines of, “Most Naxi aren’t good looking, but you are.” Someone expressed disbelief that I, a foreigner, would choose a Naxi guy over all the fine Han specimens out there (this particular Han answered his own question). The interesting thing was, TF never seemed to mind at all. He even turned around and said similar things about other ethnicities. Uyghurs are terrorists. Yi are thieves. Et cetera. I had walked into a tangled web of Chinese ethnic relations, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. My American sensibilities were immediately offended, but if none of the people in question seemed insulted, then who was I to judge?

  1. Brotherhood

I first met TF through his “brother” Yixiu, owner of Rock Bar. I soon came to learn that most of the guys who hung out or worked at Rock Bar were “brothers” from the same village in Yulong County. Closer than ordinary friends, these guys shared long histories and a responsibility to protect and respect one another. Yixiu, as the oldest in the group and therefore the “big brother,” demanded the most respect. This often led to complex tensions and conflicts among the lower ranks. If the guys felt upset with Yixiu, they did not dare to voice their complaints for fear of disrespecting their big brother. To me, as TF’s girlfriend, I was granted access to this unusual network of locals. Many of the guys came to feel like real friends. At the same time, though, with TF I consistently felt second-place to his friends. The brotherhood always came first.

  1. Moneymaking

As an upper-middle class American, I was raised to believe that education is the path to success. Pick a direction, follow through, earn a degree (or several), and a long career will follow. This same mindset is very prevalent in urban Chinese society. In Lijiang, however, I found the opposite situation. I’ve written before about Ljiang’s tourism-dominated economy, in which livelihoods are created and destroyed based on informal interpersonal networks. This environment provides easy money to uneducated locals from impoverished backgrounds. Most of the young people I met were dabblers: they played music, worked in guesthouses, led tour groups, and sold local products to tourists. Only a few held full-time “careers,” such as TF’s roommate who was a real estate agent. With his college education, TF might have had more career opportunities than many of the other locals. But surrounded as he was by Lijiang’s unique tourism economy, he remained firmly entrenched in the culture of one-time moneymaking schemes: a jade sale here, a tour group there. In a way, I found this culture freeing and inspiring. Anything seemed possible. If he were tied down to a full-time job, TF would never have had the opportunity to play music, learn about the symbolic significance of jade or tea, or interact with tourists from all walks of life. His experiences have given him a unique appreciation of his own traditional culture, an appreciation that is arguably lacking in many parts of China (and the world).

On the other hand, the Lijiang Lifestyle made me feel anxious. There was a persistent lack of ambition in the air, and the locals spent hours every day playing cards, computer games, and hanging out. As time went on I began to worry that I was losing touch with my sense of idealism, and my belief that continuous learning and hard work would make the world a better place. My decision to apply to graduate school came about during one of those long, lazy days, when I realized that I would rather work hard towards some idealistic goal than remain comfortable forever.

  1. Folk Beliefs

These were the little differences in belief that may not seem important, but tend to add up and constitute a large component of a person’s worldview. TF truly believed in the healing power of jade, Chinese herbs, and ivory (which is another issue altogether). He believed that the Chinese zodiac was of indisputable importance, and once admitted that if I weren’t a foreigner, to whom the zodiac doesn’t really apply, he never would have dated someone from the Year of the Ram. Although many of these seemed like superstitions to me, I had to admit that I probably believe many things that would seem fallacious to Chinese people. MSG is bad. Eggs must be refrigerated. Tylenol cures all. I often discussed with TF what it means to believe in something, and we reached the agreement that belief cannot be forced. Although I wanted to believe in the power of jade, for example, I simply couldn’t. I hadn’t grown up with the idea. All we could do, we agreed, was accept and respect the beliefs of the other person and hope that our own beliefs would expand and evolve with time.

  1. Political Beliefs

I used to assume, naively, that all ethnic minorities in China are somehow at odds with the Chinese government. This is what the American media seem to suggest when they print another piece about Uyghur unrest or a suppressed Tibetan protest. In Yunnan, though, I discovered that many minority people identify very strongly as citizens of the People’s Republic of China. TF was one of these. His upbringing and education had instilled in him a firm belief in the greatness of Mao Zedong, and a strong loyalty to the Communist Party of China. Growing up in America, I had learned a very different story. But how could I argue? How could I question the legitimacy of TF’s education, when I have no way of proving that my own education was any more objective? Every history textbook emphasizes one perspective over another, and every public school curriculum reflects a political agenda. When political topics came up, I chose to respect TF’s point of view and move on. But if our relationship had progressed into something more serious, we might have needed to delve more deeply into uncomfortable subjects.

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The next question, I suppose, is whether or not these cultural differences contributed to the demise of my relationship with TF. I wish I could say they did not. I wish I could say that any two people from anywhere in the world can be brought together, as we were, by curiosity, respect, and a good sense of humor. But the truth is, cultural differences do matter. Perhaps if I had spent more time in rural China before meeting him, or if he had learned English and studied abroad, these differences might have been easier to overcome. The truth is, I wasn’t ready to commit to someone who doesn’t speak English, won’t eat pizza, and believes in his heart of hearts that Mao Zedong made no mistakes. I am pretty sure that TF, similarly, wasn’t ready to commit to a flighty American who travels all over the world and might someday get a PhD.

This was a fascinating and incredibly fun experience, and I am so happy that it happened. But now it’s time to move on to the next stage of my life: working in the Laohegou Nature Reserve in Sichuan. That’ll probably be the topic of my next blog post, so stay tuned!

Okay, it’s been over a month since my last post. That’s embarrassing. I’d say it won’t happen again, but there’s a good chance I’d be lying, and I don’t believe in telling lies or truths on the internet. You’ve got to strike a delicate, unwholesome balance, that’s neither so true nor so false that it incurs the love and wrath of trolls, stalkers, lawyers, and other mythical beasts.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Buzzfeed.

But going back to the important issue of noodles, I just had a very interesting conversation with my Chinese coworker. We go out for lunch together almost every day, and every day at around 12:30 we ask each other the dreaded question: what should we eat? Neither of us is particularly picky. We both love food, especially cheap food, and we are happy to eat almost anything. Nevertheless, we do occasionally run into disagreements. My coworker would be content to eat duck blood soup every day, which I prefer to reserve for special occasions only (my limit is probably once a month). I, meanwhile, enjoy the process of wandering around outside and finding somewhere new to try, but my coworker sees this as a waste of time and often money. Over time, we have built up an arsenal of go-to restaurants to choose from: takeout sushi, wontons, cafeteria-style basics, Korean hot pot, and many, many noodle shops.

Today, when the dreaded 12:30 question came up, I suggested a little noodle restaurant we had tried for the first time last week.

My coworker looked at me blankly.

“You know,” I tried to explain, “that non-spicy one, right near the curry place that closed.”

She narrowed her eyes in that good lord what are you talking about way: “Those were fensi!”

Too late, I realized my mistake.

In English, we lump every long, doughy, stringy, pasta-like thing under the umbrella term “noodles.” Not so in Chinese. The word I had used to describe the food served at this restaurant was 面条miantiao, which specifically means “wheat noodles.” The food that had actually been served was 粉丝fensi, which are cellophane noodles made from mung beans or other starchy vegetables. These should not be confused with 米线mixian (rice vermicelli), 米粉mifen (thicker rice noodles), and 年糕niangao (short strips or pieces of glutinous rice, often served in hot pot). To my coworker, calling fensimian” was akin to calling tangerines “apples,” just because they’re both round.

It is always fascinating to me how different languages take the smooth, continuous spectrum of the world and break it up into different-sized pieces.

Take colors, for instance. A few languages, mostly in isolated corners of the world, only have separate words for black and white.Russianhas two totally different words for the light and dark versions of the color we call “blue.” In Chinese, the basic color demarcations match English pretty closely, with a few exceptions. In addition to separate words for green and blue, there is also a word青 (qing) that means both. In modern Chinese this is only used in set expressions and compound words, such as 青天qingtian (blue sky) and 青菜qingcai (green vegetables).

I have also noticed something unusual about colors in everyday speech. Although various Chinese words exist for the colors orange, brown, pink, and purple, these are often lumped together into a single category: red. I’ve heard purple sweaters, orange carrots, and brown leather boots all called “red.” Is this due to differences in vision, differences in language, or something else altogether—culture? Red is an extremely important color in China. It is the color of wealth, luck, celebration, communism, and happiness. Perhaps this deeply ingrained symbolism has caused the entire Chinese mindset to “lean red.”

I suspect, however, that these minor differences in language are less culturally significant than most of us are eager to believe. Sapir and Whorf might disagree with me, but sometimes I have to stop myself from reading too much into distinctions of language. Chinese speakers always differentiate among types of noodles, and English speakers always differentiate among shades of red. This doesn’t mean, however, that Chinese people are unable to see the differences in colors, or that I am unable to learn the differences between noodles and use their names correctly. Linguistic tests have suggested that language may influence the speed and accuracy with which speakers identify categories of things (such as colors), but there is no evidence to suggest that we cannot learn to overcome these influences with a little awareness and practice.

Languages divide the spectrum of the world into different-sized pieces, but I suspect that the underlying world is still the same.

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(This is a bowl of fensi from the aforementioned restaurant, served with quail eggs, sausage, seaweed, and lots of other delicious things in a hearty, earthy broth)